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Food & Recipes

Bourbon Meatballs Are the Perfect Party Appetizer — Easy Recipe Ready in 20 Minutes

Slow cooker recipe included to make it even easier on you!

No Kentucky Derby celebration is complete without a touch of bourbon. But who says it has to stay on the drink menu? We love adding a boozy twist to classic party dishes, and nothing sounds better than bourbon meatballs. Your guests will love these crispy yet tender bites glazed with the rich, warm flavors of Kentucky’s iconic spirit. And really, they’re perfect for any celebration. The best part? This recipe takes just 20 minutes to make, and we also included a slow-cooker variation so you can set it and forget it. Plus, learn how to make the best bourbon sauce and the right meat blend for meatballs, according to expert. Here’s what to know to make bourbon meatballs.

What are bourbon meatballs?

Take everything you love about cocktail meatballs and coat them in a sweet and savory bourbon glaze — that’s the magic of bourbon meatballs. Served as an appetizer or party food, this dish consists of ground meat, typically a combination of beef and pork, seasoned with blend of herbs and spices. The meatballs then simmer in a sauce made with chili sauce, barbecue sauce and, of course, bourbon. This Kentucky straight whiskey adds unique notes of caramel and vanilla.

Love bourbon? Try using it in Kentucky Derby Pie!

Tips for making the best bourbon meatballs

Creating bourbon meatballs all comes down to achieving the perfect balance of flavor and texture. Below, we have a few expert tips from Food Network competitive chef Britt Rescigno for cooking yours without fail.

1. Choose the right meat

While most ground meat works well in meatballs, a few combinations offer a better balance of flavor and texture. “Growing up in an Italian family in New Jersey, I’m strictly a beef and Italian sausage combo for flavor and moistness,” says Chef Rescigno. “I use grass-fed and grass-finished beef products because the flavor profile is tastier than its corn-fed counterparts.”

But if you want a lighter option, Chef Rescigno recommends “leaner types of beef — Pre Brands Beef has a 95/5 mix that has a deep beef flavor that holds up really well in a meatball.” Additionally, you can use ground turkey or ground turkey. As these can lean dry, look for a 90/10 mix.

2. Keep your mixture moist

“For a delicious meatball, it’s all about the panade. A good panade is everything,” explains Chef Rescigno. “Traditionally, it’s a bread soaked in milk. I like to use heavy cream instead. It’s fattier and it adds less sugar, so it’s actually a little better for you. A moist panade helps to keep your end result more moist.”

3. Temperature matters

Using room-temperature ingredients ensures even cooking. Cold meat can cause the fat to solidify, leading to uneven browning as well as tough meatballs. Take the chill off the ground meat, eggs and any dairy components by letting them sit at room temperature for about 30 minutes before assembling.

4. Slow-cooker vs. baking

Both methods yield great results, but the approach depends on your preference. For effortless entertaining, choose the slow cooker method. Aside from doing all the work for you, the slow cooker also melds the flavors together over time, However, if you want a little more control, the traditional method offers greater flexibility. You can brown the meatballs in a skillet before adding them to the sauce and also adjust the heat more readily.

How to make a bourbon glaze

Kentucky whiskey bottle on wooden surface used for bourbon meatballs

You won’t regret creating your own bourbon glaze for your meatballs. But first, you’ll want to use the right bourbon. Since the alcohol content cooks off during simmering, bourbon primarily adds flavor. When choosing, you don’t necessarily need a top-shelf bottle. A mid-range bourbon will do the trick and it also won’t break the break. “It’s best to use something that has a lower ABV to avoid burning,” recommends Chef Rescigno. She adds, “When selecting a bourbon, pick one that has a caramel flavor profile to bring out the flavor of the meatball.”

Extra tips

Different recipes call for different ingredients to form the base of a bourbon glaze. However, most use a combination of brown sugar, ketchup, bourbon and soy sauce. You can use this as a base, but feel free to experiment. For example, add some heat with chili sauce or red pepper flakes. Or incorporate fruit juice or preserves for sweetness. Start with a small amount of additional ingredients and taste as you go. Additionally, if your glaze seems too thin after simmering, you can thicken it with cornstarch.

Easy bourbon meatballs recipe

Now you can put those colorful toothpicks in your pantry to good use! This 20-minute recipe from Dishes Delish serves up perfect bourbon meatballs for your Derby party. You can also pre-make the meatballs up to a day in advance. This recipe recommends using grass-fed beef for extra flavor and nutrients.

Bourbon Meatballs Appetizer

bourbon meatballs with herbs in white serving bowl with utensils


  • 1 lb. ground beef, grass fed
  • ½ cup breadcrumbs
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ cup parmesan cheese
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 tsp. onion powder
  • 2 tsp. dried basil
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • ½ cup bourbon
  • ¾ cup ketchup
  • ⅓ cup brown sugar
  • 1 Tbs. apple cider vinegar
  • 3 dashes paprika
  • 2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 2 dashes chipotle powder
  • ¼ tsp. salt


  • Active Time: 5 minutes
  • Total Time: 20 minutes
  • Yield: 27 meatballs
  1. In a large mixing bowl, place all the meatball ingredients (except the olive oil) and mix them together with your hands. Then, grab a small amount of meat and roll it into a meatball (you choose the size), place each ball on a plate until all the meat is used up.
  2. Heat a sauté pan and add up to 2 Tbs. of olive oil. Then, add the meatballs and sauté them, turning them every 30 seconds to brown all the sides, around 8 minutes. After, remove from the pan and set aside.
  3. In a separate pan, add all the ingredients for the sauce, bring it to a boil and cook it for 10 minutes. Then, lower the heat and add the meatballs back in. Stir until the sauce covers them. Continue simmering for 5 minutes before serving.

Slow cooker bourbon meatballs recipe

If you have a slow cooker on hand, you can also make bourbon meatballs without the prep work! Just follow this video tutorial below. This recipe from Forkly uses frozen meatballs and takes about 2 hours.

Storing and reheating

Leftover bourbon meatballs can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or 3 months in the freezer. To reheat, place the meatballs in the sauce (or a little additional sauce if needed) in a skillet over low heat until warmed through. You can also reheat them in a microwave-safe dish on low power, stirring occasionally, until heated.

What to pair with bourbon meatballs

Your bourbon meatballs deserve accompaniments that celebrate the spirit of the Kentucky Derby! So, try some of these Southern-inspired dishes that will make any crowd happy..

1. Kentucky Hot Browns

This iconic open-faced sandwich is a Derby staple. Sliced turkey, bacon and a decadent Mornay sauce on toasted bread — all broiled until golden brown. Click through for the easy recipe.

3. Cornbread

Warm, fluffy cornbread can help scoop up leftover bourbon meatballs as well as any remaining glaze. Make this buttery recipe in 25 minutes!

3. Mint Juleps

The official drink of the Kentucky Derby, a Mint Julep is a refreshing and celebratory beverage. Bourbon, mint and sugar offers sweet as well as minty notes. This recipe uses just 6 ingredients!

If you love meatballs, you need to try some of these other variations below:

Asian Turkey Meatballs Are a Delicious Twist on a Classic Favorite: Easy 30-Minute Recipe

You’ll Love These Party-Perfect Stuffed Meatballs: They’re Cheesy + Easy to Make

Air-Fryer Meatballs Are the Perfect Party Appetizer — Easy Recipe Ready in 12 Minutes

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